by Suvendrini Kakuchi
(IPS) KOBE -- Non- governmental organizations are worried that important aspects of global disaster reduction would be overlooked at an international conference as countries and agencies jostle to take the lead in a high-profile tsunami early warning system.
'There is a huge response from the international community to never repeat the tsunami disaster by creating a warning system. But there is less support for community based programs for disaster mitigation,' Markhu Niskala, secretary general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, told IPS at the sidelines of the UN-organized World Conference on Disaster Reduction.
Over 4,000 delegates are at this biggest gathering on disaster reduction, which opened here on Tuesday -- in the aftermath of the Dec. 26 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed over 160,000 in South and South-east Asia.
According to the Red Cross, disaster mitigation must also focus on community-based loss reduction strategies ranging from public education campaigns focusing on what communities need to do to become more disaster resistant, to school-based programs and efforts to educate government officials in local communities.
Jonathan Rout, an Indian field worker in the Churches Auxiliary for Social Action based in New Delhi, said disaster prevention in rural poor societies can only be achieved by long-term strategies that involve the local communities.
'The warning system is just one aspect of preventing another disaster,' he said. 'But people tend to forget that technology alone cannot prevent disasters. It must be complimented with community-based efforts.'
'The danger now is that there will be not enough funds going into rural-based projects to better prepare vulnerable communities,' added the field worker who took time off from doing emergency relief work in India's southern coast of Tamil Nadu -- where over 8,800 died when the tsunami hit -- to attend the conference.
In a briefing paper circulated before the conference the World Bank warned that the problem in developing countries often comes down to making difficult development choices from among the many competing demands.
'Disaster mitigation, because it is a periodic need rather than a constant one, tends to lose out to other priorities -- especially once the disaster has fallen out of the international media and the immediate relief needs have been met,' said the Bank.
The Bank stressed that policies and actions involving communities that are intended to reduce the impact of the next disaster, must be an integral part of a strategy of both recuperation and pre-disaster planning.
Nonetheless the conference organizers have set their top priority as the construction of an early warning system for ravaged nations in the Indian Ocean with UN officials insisting on a central role in coordinating the expertise and setting up the system.
'We are confident that an initial early warning system can be in place by July next year given the technology that we already have,' said Patrico Bernal, executive secretary of the UN's Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission which coordinates a tsunami warning system in the Pacific.
Bernal said the system from the Pacific would later extend globally to cover other oceans utilising specialist technology already owned by India, for instance, that has state-of-the-art weather forecasting systems and Germany that is spearheading an ambitious warning mechanism based on space science.
He pointed out that the challenge now faced at the conference is to provide the platform that will coordinate these proposals -- taking into consideration the key importance of entailing a smooth regional commitment to work with each other.
'The weakest link is not technical but political. Success can only be achieved if participating governments are able to make their own correct assessments and evacuation programs once the warnings have been sent by the new tsunami monitoring system,' Bernal explained.
The jostling among governments to play a leading role in the tsunami early warning system began on Tuesday when Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said his government was willing to set up a framework, drawn up in Kobe, and offer help with the $30 million cost.
The U.S. also wants to play a role in coordinating a system, while China and India have both announced international gatherings on tsunami warning systems for later this month.
Marcus Oxley, disaster management director for Tearfund, a Britain-based charity, said: 'I don't mind if Australia and Japan or anybody else wants to contribute. But let's not duplicate and replicate.'
UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization) plans two meetings in Paris, the first in early March, to look at all the proposals, find common ground and work toward a single system.
'It is important to ensure the Indian Ocean warning system be collectively owned by the countries in the region,' said Laura Kong, a scientist in the UNESCO team.
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